Chinese Notes

Back to collection

The Book of Rites 《禮記》

《禮器》 Rites in the Formation of Character

》 Rites in the Formation of Character

The rules of propriety serve as instruments to form men's characters, and they are therefore prepared on a great scale. Being so, the value of them is very high. They remove from a man all perversity, and increase what is beautiful in his nature. They make him correct, when employed in the ordering of himself; they ensure for him free course, when employed towards others. They are to him what their outer coating is to bamboos, and what its heart is to a pine or cypress. These two are the best of all the productions of the (vegetable) world. They endure through all the four seasons, without altering a branch or changing a leaf. The superior man observes these rules of propriety, so that all in a wider circle are harmonious with him, and those in his narrower circle have no dissatisfactions with him. Men acknowledge and are affected by his goodness, and spirits enjoy his virtue.

The rules as instituted by the ancient kings had their radical element and their outward and elegant form. A true heart and good faith are their radical element. The characteristics of each according to the idea of what is right in it are its outward and elegant form: Without the radical element, they could not have been established; without the elegant form, they could not have been put in practice.

(The things used in performing) the rites should be suitable to the season, taken from the resources supplied by the ground, in accordance with (the requirements of) the spirits, and agreeable to the minds of men;-according to the characteristics of all things. Thus each season has its productions, each soil its appropriate produce, each sense its peculiar power, and each thing its advantageousness. Therefore what any season does not produce, what any soil does not nourish, will not be used by a superior man in performing his rites, nor be enjoyed by the spirits. If mountaineers were to (seek to) use fish and turtles in their rites, or the dwellers near lakes, deer and pigs, the superior man would say of them that they did not know (the nature of) those usages. Therefore it is necessary to take the established revenues of a state as the great rule for its ceremonial (expenditure). Important for the determination of this is the size of its territory. The amount of the offerings (also) should have regard to the character of the year as good or bad. In this way, though the harvest of a year may be very defective, the masses will not be afraid, and the ceremonies as appointed by the superiors will be economically regulated.

In (judging of) rites the time should be the great consideration. (Their relation to) natural duties, their material substance, their appropriateness to circumstances, and their proportioning are all secondary. Yao's resignation of the throne to Shun, and Shun's resignation of it to Yu; Tang's dethronement of Jie; and the overthrow of Zhou by Wen and Wu - all these are to be judged of by the time. As the Book of Poetry says, "It was not that he was in haste to gratify his wishes; It was to show the filial duty that had come down to him.'" The sacrifices to heaven and earth; the services of the ancestral temple; the courses for father and son; and the righteousness between ruler and minister - these are to be judged of as natural duties. The services at the altars of the land and grain and of the hills and streams; and the sacrifices to spirits - these are to be judged of by the material substance of the offerings. The use of the funeral rites and sacrifices; and the reciprocities of host and guest - these are to be judged of by their appropriateness to circumstances. Sacrificing with a lamb and a sucking pig, by the multitude of officers, when yet there was enough; and sacrificing with an ox, a ram, and a boar, when yet there was nothing to spare - in these we have an instance of the proportioning. The princes set great store by the tortoise, and consider their jade-tokens as the insignia of their rank, while the (chiefs of) clans have not the tortoises that are so precious, nor the jade-tokens to keep (by themselves), nor the towered gateways - these (also) are instances of the proportioning.

In some ceremonial usages the multitude of things formed the mark of distinction, The son of Heaven had 7 shrines in his ancestral temple; the prince of a state, 5; Great officers, 3; and other officers, 1. The dishes of the son of Heaven on stands were 26; of a duke, 16; of another prince, 12; of a Great officer of the upper class, 8; of one of the lower class, 6, To a prince there were given 7 attendants and 7 oxen; and to a Great officer, 5 of each, The son of Heaven sat on 5 mats placed over one another; a prince, on 3; and a Great officer, on 2. When the son of Heaven died, he was buried after 7 months, in a fivefold coffin, with 8 plumes; a prince was buried after 5 months, in a threefold coffin, with 6 plumes; a Great officer after 3 months, in a twofold coffin, with 4 Plumes. In these cases, the multitude of things was the mark of distinction.

In other usages, the paucity of things formed the mark of distinction. To the son of Heaven there were given no attendants, and he sacrificed to Heaven with a single victim; when he visited the princes (on his tours of inspection), he was feasted with a single bullock. When princes went to the courts of one another, fragrant spirits were used in libations, and there were no dishes on stands, either of wood or bamboo. At friendly missions by Great officers, the ceremonial offerings were slices of dried meat and pickles. The son of Heaven declared himself satisfied after 1 dish; a prince, after 2; a Great officer and other officers, after 3; while no limit was set to the eating of people who lived by their labour. (The horses of) the Great carriage had 1 ornamental tassel at their breast-bands; those of the other carriages had 7 (pieces of) jade for rank-tokens; and libation cups were presented singly; as also the tiger-shaped and yellow cups. In sacrificing to spirits a single mat was used; when princes were giving audience to their ministers, they (bowed to) the Great officers one by one, but to all the other officers together. In these cases the fewness of the things formed the mark of distinction.

In others, greatness of size formed the mark. The dimensions of palaces and apartments; the measurements of dishes and (other) articles; the thickness of the inner and outer coffins; the greatness of eminences and mounds - these were cases in which the greatness of size was the mark.

In others, smallness of size formed the mark. At the sacrifices of the ancestral temple, the highest in rank presented a cup (of spirits to the representative of the dead), and the low, a san (containing five times as much): (at some other sacrifices), the honourable took a zhi (containing 3 cups), and the low a horn (containing 4). (At the feasts of viscounts and barons), when the vase went round 5 times, outside the door was the earthenware fou (of supply), and inside, the hu; while the ruler's vase was an earthenware wu - these were cases in which the smallness of size was the mark of distinction.

In others, the height formed the mark of distinction. The hall of the son of Heaven was ascended by 9 steps; that of a prince, by 7; that of a Great officer, by 5; and that of an ordinary officer, by 3. The son of Heaven and the princes had (also) the towered gateway. In these cases height was the mark.

In others, the lowness formed the mark. In sacrificing, the highest reverence was not shown on the raised altar, but on the ground beneath, which, had been swept. The vases of the son of Heaven and the princes were set on a tray without feet; those of Great and other officers on one with feet (3 inches high). In these cases the lowness was the mark of distinction.

In others, ornament formed the mark. The son of Heaven wore his upper robe with the dragons figured on it; princes, the lower robe with the axes' embroidered on it; Great officers, their lower robe with the symbol of distinction; and other officers, the dark-coloured upper robe, and the lower one red. The cap of the son of Heaven had 12 pendents of jade beads set on strings hanging-down of red and green silk; that of princes, 9; that of Great officers of the highest grade, 7; and if they were of the lowest grade, 5; and that of other officers, 3 - in these cases the ornament was the mark of distinction.

In others, plainness formed the mark. Acts of the greatest reverence admit of no ornament. The relatives of a father do not put themselves into postures (like other visitors). The Grand jade-token has no engraving on it. The Grand soup has no condiments. The Grand carriage is plain, and the mats in it are of rushes. The goblet with the victim-ox carved on it is covered with a plain white cloth. The ladle is made of white-veined wood. These are cases in which plainness is the mark.

Confucius said, 'Ceremonial usages should be most carefully considered.' This is the meaning of the remark that 'while usages are different, the relations between them as many or few should be maintained.' His words had reference to the proportioning of rites.

That in the (instituting of) rites the multitude of things was considered a mark of distinction, arose from the minds (of the framers) being directed outwards. The energy (of nature) shoots forth and is displayed everywhere in all things, with a great discriminating control over their vast multitude. In such a case, how could they keep from making multitude a mark of distinction in rites? Hence the superior men, (the framers), rejoiced in displaying (their discrimination).

But that in (the instituting of) rites the paucity of things was (also) considered a mark of distinction, arose from the minds (of the framers) being directed inwards. Extreme as is the energy (of nature) in production, it is exquisite and minute. When we look at all the things under the sky, they do not seem to be in proportion to that energy, In such a case, how could they keep from considering paucity a mark of distinction? Hence the superior men, (the framers), watched carefully over the solitude (of their own thoughts).

The ancient sages (thus) gave honour to what was internal, and sought pleasure in what was external; found a mark of distinction in paucity, and one of what was admirable in multitude; and therefore in the ceremonial usages instituted by the ancient kings we should look neither for multitude nor for paucity, but for the due relative proportion. Therefore, when a man of rank uses a large victim in sacrifice, we say he acts according to propriety, but when an ordinary officer does so, we say be commits an act of usurpation. Guan Zhong had his sacrificial dishes of grain carved, and red bands to his cap; fashioned hills on the capitals of his pillars, and pondweed on the small pillars above the beams - the superior man considered it wild extravagance. Yan Ping-zhong, in sacrificing to his father, used a sucking-pig which did not fill the dish, and went to court in an (old) washed robe and cap - the superior man considered it was niggardliness. Therefore the superior man thinks it necessary to use the utmost care in his practice of ceremonies. They are the bond that holds the multitudes together; and if the bond be removed, those multitude's fall into confusion. Confucius said, 'If I fight, I overcome; when I sacrifice, I receive blessing.' He said so, because he had the right way (of doing everything).

A superior man will say, 'The object in sacrifices is not to pray; the time of them should not be hastened on; a great apparatus is not required at them; ornamental matters are not to be approved; the victims need not be fat and large; a profusion of the other offerings is not to be admired.' Confucius said, 'How can it be said that Zang Wen-zhong was acquainted with the rules of propriety? When Xia Fu-Qi went right in the teeth of sacrificial order, he did not stop him, (nor could he prevent) his burning a pile of firewood in sacrificing to the spirit of the furnace. Now that sacrifice is paid to an old wife. The materials for it might be contained in a tub, and the vase is the (common) wine-jar.'

The rules of propriety may be compared to the human body. When the parts of one's body are not complete, the beholder' will call him 'An imperfect man;' and so a rule which has been made unsuitably may be denominated 'incomplete.' Some ceremonies are great, and some small; some are manifest, and some minute. The great should not be diminished, nor the small increased. The manifest should not be hidden, nor the minute made great. But while the important rules are 300, and the smaller rules 3000, the result to which they all lead is one and the same. No one can enter an apartment but by the door.

A superior man in his observance of the rules, where he does his utmost and uses the greatest care, is extreme in his reverence and the manifestation of sincerity. Where they excite admiration and an elegant attractiveness, there is (still) that manifestation of sincerity. A superior man, in his consideration of the rules, finds those which are carried directly into practice; those in which one has to bend and make some modification; those which are regular and the same for all classes; those which are diminished in a certain order; those in which (a kind of) transplantation takes place, and (the ceremony) is distributed; those in which individuals are pushed forward and take part in the rules of a higher grade; those in which there are ornamental imitations (of natural objects); those in which the ornamental imitations are not carried out so fully; and those where appropriation (of higher observances) is not deemed usurpation.

The usages of the three dynasties had one and the same object, and the people all observed them. In such matters as colour, whether it should be white or dark, Xia instituted and Yin adopted (its choice, or did not do so).

Under the Zhou dynasty the representatives of the dead sat. Their monitors and cup-suppliers observed no regular rules, The usages were the same (as those of Yin), and the underlying principle was one. Under the Xia dynasty, the personators had stood till the sacrifice was ended, (whereas) under Yin they sat. Under Zhou, when the cup went round among all, there were six personators'. Zeng-zi said, 'The usages of Zhou might be compared to those of a subscription club.'

A superior man will say, 'The usages of ceremony that come closest to our human feelings are not those of the highest sacrifices; (as may be seen in) the blood of the border sacrifice; the raw flesh in the great offering (to all the royal ancestors) of the ancestral temple; the sodden flesh, where the spirits are presented thrice; and the roast meat, where they are presented once.'

And so those usages were not devised by superior men in order to give expression to their feelings. There was a beginning of them from (the oldest times); as when (two princes) have an interview, there are seven attendants to wait on them and direct them. Without these the interview would be too plain and dull. They reach (the ancestral temple) after the visitor has thrice declined the welcome of the host, and the host has thrice tried to give precedence to the other. Without these courtesies the interview would be too hurried and abrupt. In the same way, when in Lu they were about to perform the service to God (in the suburb), they felt it necessary first to have a service in the college with its semicircular pool. When they were about in Jin to sacrifice to the He, they would first do so to the pool of Wu. When in Qi they were about to sacrifice to mount Tai, they would do so first in the forest of Pei. Moreover, the keeping the victims (for the altar of Heaven) for three months (in the stable); the abstinence (of the worshippers) for seven days; and the vigil of three days:-all showed the extreme degree of (preparatory) care (for the service). The ritual arrangements, further, of the reception (of guests) and communication between them and the host, and for assisting and guiding the steps of the (blind) musicians, showed the extreme degree of kindly (provision).

In ceremonial usages we should go back to the root of them (in the mind), and maintain the old (arrangements of them), not forgetting what they were at first. Hence there is no (need to be) calling attention to the demonstrations expressive of grief; and those which (more particularly) belong to the court are accompanied by music. There is the use of sweet spirits, and the value set on water; there is the use of the (ordinary) knife, and the honour expressed by that furnished with (small) bells; there is the comfort afforded by the rush and fine bamboo mats, and the (special) employment of those which are made of straw. Therefore the ancient kings in their institution of the rules of propriety had a ruling idea, and thus it is that they were capable of being transmitted, and might be learned, however many they were.

The superior man will say, 'If a man do not have in himself the distinctions (embodied in ceremonies), he will contemplate that embodiment without any intelligent discrimination; if he wish to exercise that discrimination, and not follow the guidance of the rules, he will not succeed in his object. Hence if his practice of ceremonies be not according to the rules, men will not respect them; and if his words be not according to those rules, men will not believe them. Accordingly it is said, "The rules of ceremony are the highest expression of (the truth of) things."'

Hence it was that in old times, when the ancient kings instituted ceremonies, they conveyed their idea by means of the qualities of the articles and observances which they employed. In their great undertakings, they were sure to act in accordance with the seasons; in their doings morning and evening, they imitated the sun and moon; in what required a high situation, they took advantage of mounds and hillocks, and in what required a low situation, of the (banks of the) rivers and lakes. Hence each season has its rains and benefits, and those wise men sought to make use of them with intelligence with all the earnestness they could command. The ancient kings valued (men's) possession of virtue, honoured those who pursued the right course, and employed those who displayed ability. They selected men of talents and virtue, and appointed them. They assembled the whole of them and solemnly addressed them.

Then in accordance with (the height of) heaven they did service to Heaven, in accordance with (the lower position of) earth they did service to Earth; taking advantage of the famous hills they ascended them, and announced to Heaven the good government (of the princes). When thus at the felicitous spot (chosen for their capitals) they presented their offerings to God in the suburb and announced to Heaven (the general good government from the famous hills), the phoenix descended, and tortoises and dragons made their appearance. When they presented their offerings to God in the suburb the winds and rains were duly regulated, and the cold and heat came each in its proper time, so that the sage (king) had only to stand with his face to the south, and order prevailed all under the sky.

The courses of the heavenly (bodies) supply the most perfect lessons, and the sages possessed the highest degree of virtue. Above, in the hall of the ancestral temple, there was the jar, with clouds and hills represented on it on the east, and that with the victim represented on it on the west. Below the hall the larger drums were suspended on the west, and the smaller drums answering to them on the east. The ruler appeared at the (top of the) steps on the east; his wife was in the apartment on the west. The great luminary makes his appearance in the east; the moon makes her appearance in the west. Such are the different ways in which the processes of darkness and light are distributed in nature, and such are the arrangements for the positions (corresponding thereto) of husband and wife. The ruler fills his cup from the jar with an elephant represented on it; his wife fills hers from that with clouds and hills. With such reciprocation do the ceremonies proceed above, while the music responds in the same way below - there is the perfection of harmony.

It is the object of ceremonies to go back to the circumstances from which they sprang, and of music to express pleasure in the results which first gave occasion to it. Thus it was that the ancient kings, in their institution of ceremonies, sought to express their regulation of circumstances, and, in their cultivation of music, to express the aims they had in mind. Hence by an examination of their ceremonies and music, the conditions of order and disorder in which they originated can be known. Qu Bo-Yu said, 'A wise man, by his intelligence, from the sight of any article, knows the skill of the artificer, and from the contemplation of an action knows the wisdom of its performer.' Hence there is the saying, 'The superior man watches over the manner in which he maintains his intercourse with other men.'

Within the ancestral temple reverence prevailed. The ruler himself led the victim forward, while the Great officers assisted and followed, bearing the offerings of silk. The ruler himself cut out (the liver) for (the preliminary) offering, while his wife bore the dish in which it should be presented. The ruler himself cut up the victim, while his wife presented the spirits. The high ministers and Great officers followed the ruler; their wives followed his wife. How grave and still was their reverence! How were they absorbed in their sincerity! How earnest was their wish that their offerings should be accepted! The arrival of the victim was announced (to the spirits) in the courtyard; on the presentation of the blood and the flesh with the hair on it, announcement was made in the chamber; on the presentation of the soup and boiled meat, in the hall. The announcement was made thrice, each time in a different place; indicating how they were seeking for the spirits, and had not yet found them. When the sacrifice was set forth in the hall, it was repeated next day outside (the gate of the temple); and hence arose the saying, ' Are they there? Are they here?'

One offering of the cup showed the simplicity of the service; three offerings served to ornament it; five, to mark discriminating care; and seven, to show (the reverence for) the spirits.

Was not the great quinquennial sacrifice a service belonging to the king? The three animal victims, the fish, and flesh, were the richest tributes for the palate from all within the four seas and the nine provinces. The fruits and grain presented in the high dishes of wood and bamboo were the product of the harmonious influences of the four seasons, The tribute of metal showed the harmonious submission (of the princes). The rolls of silk with the round pieces of jade placed on them showed the honour they rendered to virtue. The tortoise was placed in front of all the other offerings, because of its knowledge of the future; the tribute of metal succeeded to it, showing the (hold it has on) human feelings. The vermilion, the varnish, the silk, the floss, the large bamboos and the smaller for arrows - the articles which all the states contribute; with the other uncommon articles, which each state contributed according to its resources, even to those from the remote regions - (these followed the former). When the Visitors left they were escorted with the music of the Si Xia. All these things showed how important was the sacrifice.

In the sacrifice to God in the suburb, we have the utmost expression of reverence. In the sacrifices of the ancestral temple, we have the utmost expression of humanity. In the rites of mourning, we have the utmost expression of leal-heartedness. In the preparation of the robes and vessels for the dead, we have the utmost expression of affection. In the use of gifts and offerings between host and guest, we have the utmost expression of what is right. Therefore when the superior man would see the ways of humanity and righteousness, he finds them rooted in these ceremonial usages.

A superior man has said, 'What is sweet may be tempered; what is white may be coloured. So the man who is right in heart and sincere can learn the (meaning of the) rites.' The rites should not be perfunctorily performed by the man who is not right in heart and sincere. Hence it is all important (in the performance of them) to get the proper men.

Confucius said, 'One may repeat the three hundred odes, and not be fit to offer the sacrifice where there is (but) one offering of the cup. He may offer that sacrifice, and not be fit to join in a great sacrifice. He may join in such a sacrifice, and not be fit to offer a great sacrifice to the hills. He may perform that fully, and yet not be able to join in the sacrifice to God, Let no one lightly discuss the subject of rites.'

When Zi-lu was steward to the House of Ji, its chief had been accustomed to commence his sacrifices before it was light, and when the day was insufficient for them, to continue them by torchlight. All engaged in them, however strong they might appear, and however reverent they might be, were worn out and tired. The officers limped and leaned, wherever they could, in performing their parts, and the want of reverence was great. Afterwards, when Zi-lu took the direction of them, the sacrifices proceeded differently. For the services in the chamber, he had parties communicating outside and inside the door; and for those in the hall, he had parties communicating at the steps. As soon as it was light, the services began, and by the time of the evening audience all were ready to retire. When Confucius heard of this management, he said, 'Who will say that this You does not understand ceremonies?'

Source: Chinese Text Project English translation "Sacred Books of the East, volume 28, part 4: The Li Ki", James Legge, 1885

Vocabulary Analysis

See the Help page for more information on the best use of the dictionary or if you have problems. Copyright Fo Guang Shan Nan Tien Institute 佛光山南天大學 2013-2017, This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. See About. Please send comments to

This page was last updated on 2017-09-22.